What ever happened to “Mrs”?

Let’s take a small detour back the late 50s and early 60s when the hoopla about women in the workplace hit a high note. During WWII, women in the US were actively recruited to work different kinds of jobs for military purposes: secretaries, factory and assembly line workers, nurses, and any other jobs that were left vacant by the actively-serving men. After the war, the men returned and life settled down to the pre-war status quo.

What did the til-recently employed women do? They eagerly returned to the workplace, went to university, became stay-at-home mothers, or otherwise continued their pursuits. Why, then, the hoopla?

Women soon discovered that men made a lot more money than, til recently, they did—even for the same job. The outcry was full blast, and sparked an age of social reform that lasts til today. Among the many subsequent reforms were gender titles. Several feminists such as Gloria SteinemBetty Friedan, and the National Organization for Women declared that it is discrimination to address a woman as Mrs.—what does it matter if she is married, single, widowed, separated, or divorced? Men were just Mr, with no connotation about marriage. They settled on Ms; as historically, Ms was used in the 17th century for Mistress. There was such an outcry—it won’t stick, this is nonsense. But it did!

Today, in business, Mrs should be avoided in favour of Ms no matter the marital status of the individual in question. For example, it is 100% appropriate to use Ms Kalniņa when referring to me. Of course, if I wish, I can request Mrs—it’s my choice. Business letters, emails, and even verbal address to a woman should use Ms. (This is not to be confused with Miss, which is how Ms is pronounced—not how it should be written!)

(Note: in American English, the honorifics Mr, Mrs, and Ms are usually followed by a full-stop. For international English, however, it isn’t. Use whichever applies to your audience; or if you don’t know, assume an international audience.)

In European business communities, however, the modern honorific varies. In Germany, it’s acceptable to address all women as Frau (Mrs) even if she is Fraulein (Ms). In France, on the other hand, Mademoiselle (Ms) should be avoided in favour of Madame (Mrs).

What should you do?

  • Use common sense: if the lady is older, she may prefer being addressed as Mrs.
  • If she is a young girl (again, common sense), call her Miss Lucy Smith.
  • Calling a woman Missy is demeaning no matter her age, profession, or marital status. Don’t!
  • For English speakers in Europe, if you do not know a woman’s name and you want to get her attention, you might say your ticket please, Madame. (Yes, even in Germany.)
  • In the US, if you do not know a woman’s name and you want to get her attention, you might say Miss, please your ticket. I suspect even a Ma’am would be considered appropriate in that situation, but…
  • Don’t overdo Ma’am unless you are in the US military, live in a southern US state, or have a rare excess of charm.
  • Hey, lady—never works! (Unless your name is Humphrey Bogart.)